Voting Rights Act…and Privilege, I guess (UPDATED)

Today President Bush signed legislation extending for 25 years the Voting Rights Act, the historic 1965 law which opened polls to millions of disenfranchised Americans by outlawing discriminatory voting practices in the South.

This is the first news I’m smacked with on the radio as I drove into work today. It disturbs me and I’m trying to figure out why I am so bothered.

I think I am annoyed by how reporters described the fanfare and celebration on the White House lawn as this bill was being signed. What the heck are they so happy about? I don’t understand, and am quite frankly pissed off when the privileged in this country do things to correct heinous, egregious wrongs in our history and celebrate as if they’ve had this great idea to do someone a freaking favor. This was not a favor. Every state in the union had granted universal suffrage by 1920!! Why the hell did it take an Act in 1965 to make voting rights practices fair? And why are they still unfair in many jurisdictions? (Shall I call your attention to the little voting registration mishaps in Florida that led to dufus, bill signing, gangster-pig W’s very own election? How soon we forget!) Check this out:

History of American Suffrage

15th Amendment (1870): all races may vote
19th Amendment (1920): all sexes may vote
23rd Amendment (1961): residents of the District of Columbia can vote for President but not for congress
24th Amendment (1964): Made poll tax illegal
26th Amendment (1971): Reduced voting age from 21 to 18

Now, I’m not usually one to engage in political banter because I’m just too fickle. I’m registered independent because there are elements of each party line that matter to me and somehow I don’t want to feel obligated to one party or another (and yes, I know I may register with a party and still vote for whoever I want, and that it wouldn’t hurt since I’m cut out of the primaries right now anyway. Thanks.) But I’m making an exception for this one. I had to say something because I’m annoyed.

Privilege is an uncomfortable topic. But it is a fact of life. Period. It’s not an American reality, a western reality, or a human reality for that matter, it’s a fact of life…all life, even in the animal kingdom. The difference with humans is that we have choices about what we do with our privilege. I believe (and many would disagree) that we all have at least one form of privilege. I can think of several for me: I’m heterosexual, college educated, bilingual, American, middle class. Of course, these only matter in certain contexts and in contrast to others with less privilege, but it’s privilege nonetheless. For example, as middle class I am only more privileged than someone of a lower class. Being American only comes with privilege in contexts that value American citizenship (inside and outside of this country). But, certainly there is some privilege ascribed even to me, a Black, overweight, woman in a white man’s world.

I was sitting in a meeting yesterday of representatives from several governmental agencies and NGO’s who either receive or administer funds for anti-violence against women work. There was one “big wig” from the governor’s office there who kept answering his cell phone, talking loud, walking out of the meeting, etc. Because he could. He was the man. He was in a room full of mostly white women, a handful of minority women and one black man. A black woman with a question about making sure those serving the interests of underserved populations were brought to the table as major funding decisions were being made was blown off by this man with, “yeah, we’ll get to that. We’ll bring them in later.” He completely dismissed her and her point that later won’t do because that is exactly what keeps these populations marginalized. He blew her off and called for the meeting to move on, and damnit if they didn’t do just that. And HE WASN’T EVEN RUNNING THE MEETING!! I was furious.

We all have choices to make to be responsible (or not) with our privilege. It’s a difficult choice to dis avail oneself of privilege. I don’t know if I can recall at the moment one instance where I’ve done it myself. But it seems to me like those with the most privilege have abundant opportunities to choose to lay it down, and don’t. I catch a lot of flack for the statement I’m about to make, but I really believe it to be true: the only reason blacks in this country have the rights we do is because privileged whites took up our cause and said enough is enough. We didn’t take our freedom, it was given to us. This does not in anyway diminish the work of freedom fighters and civil rights activist. They were absolutely (and continue to be) essential to creating consciousness in the society. But the Voting rights Act of 1965 didn’t become law until the privileged decided to give up lily white American suffrage. It’s just the truth.

Now why are they celebrating that? I think the signing of the bill should have been akin to Sorry Day.

UPDATE:
For a good taste of white male privilege in a non-American context, watch Rabbit Proof Fence.

Any thoughts?

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10 thoughts on “Voting Rights Act…and Privilege, I guess (UPDATED)

  1. Ohhhhh…you just opened up a whole lot of graves with that one! They aren’t just turning in them they are coming out….to get you!

    I feel you but I have to slightly disagree. Yes, we all have free will. Yes, we COULD all assume the role of Jesus and just act right. Yes, we could all be the strong one and fight for what we deserve even if it means death.

    BUT…responsibility comes back into play. If you have a family and are trying to make sure the next generation can do a little better: do you fight at the risk of losing more (even your life) or do you try to just get by?!?!?

    There were black Americans who fought for our rights. White American history just does not make sure that we all know all of that. No, we may not have taken our freedom alone, without the help of white Americans, but I do believe that for every white American who stood up for OUR cause…there was a black American close to his/her side as informant, confidant, aide, business partner, lover, spouse and maybe even child.

    No, this is not something that they should be hollering and whooping about. It is some dumb ish that just should have been done. But, when your quality ratings are low…you need to whoop about something!

  2. I wish I could be as eloquent as Lex and KMF. As a product of the south, raised on the east coast, married to an immigrant who disagrees with me on nearly every single political issue, all I can say is that I relate to your annoyance. Why? Because having our right to vote extended by 25 years should be a non-issue. By virtue of just being an American, all of us should know that our right to vote is protected without a special Act to support it.

    Funny how we impose our democratic views on the whole rest of the world, yet manage to screw it up so royally at home… STILL!

  3. @KMF

    I think we are on the same page. We aren’t willing to be benevolent and give up privilege. For any reason, really.

    And, as for my ancestors who may want to kill me right now…hear me. I agree with you. Their blood, sweat and tears was invaluable. But we couldn’t and wouldn’t have the progress we have to this point without the giving up of privilege by those who yeah, had ” a black American close to his/her side as informant, confidant, aide, business partner, lover, spouse and maybe even child.” On that we agree.

    @ Katrice

    It’s like W thinks, “Aw, Suni’s, Shiites, and Kurds, can’t we all just get along? Look at us. We gave our niggers the vote!!”

  4. Oh Lexi! You are so about to go down! LOL. You know we are supposed to keep that “in the family” LOL. You are aobut to have Cosby and Oprah all over your black behind! LOL.

  5. I think that what protects our privilege at this point is our buing power and our voting power. Whites see themselves as the “new minority” yes they still have all the freakin power, but they are loosing footing on being the majority group within the U.S. What does this mean? It means that whites will continue to “give us our privileges” so that we will continue to keep them in power by voting for them and we will continue to keep them rich by spending our money in their stores. The democrats have always touted themselves as the “friends of the minorities”. What it really means is that at some point some white person realized that change was on the horizon and in order to secure their political position in the U.S. they needed to bring in a new level of supporters…let’s get the black folks on our side! Think about the last election year where the issue was raised that the democrats have taken the “black vote” for granted…and the one coming up – this time around the immigrants–the hispanic community in particular are the way to the white house! “They can’t vote yet, but Oh boy the support we will get when they can!” When the face of the average American changes, those in power pride themselves on the ability to foresee this change so that they can get these folks on their side supporting their issues keeping them in power. SORRY DAY?!?!?! Ha Ha Ha–I let you know when I get my reparations check in the mail!

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